Icons of cycling: Three Peaks Cyclocross

We look at the Yorkshire Dales classic, which mixes running and cycling, and talk to the man who founded it

The three peaks in question are Ingleborough (703 metres), Whernside (736 metres) and Pen-y-ghent (694 metres). They are in the Yorkshire Dales, and crossing them in a 40-kilometre loop has been a walker’s rite of passage ever since two Giggleswick school teachers did it back in 1887.

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They went round in 10 hours, and slowly the challenge gained notoriety and momentum. By the 1930s fit young walkers were going under five hours, and the first official Three Peaks running race was held in 1954. The Cumbrian runner Fred Bagley won in three hours 48 minutes.

A legend is born

Then in 1959 a 14-year-old Skipton schoolboy, Kevin Watson, did the Three Peaks route on his bike, riding where he could and carrying his bike for the rest. Watson’s time was six hours 45 minutes, including one hour and 17 minutes for rests.

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John Rawnsley read about Watson’s ride in the local  paper and was inspired. He was a good road racer and got some of his Bradford mates together, and they had a go. “It was a sort of hard-riding club run the first time,” Rawnsley said in 2012.

“We tried it one Sunday in 1960. We started in Ribblehead; me, Harry Bond, Geoff Whittam, Ron Bows and Pete O’Neil, and we climbed Whernside first, then Ingleborough, then Pen-y-ghent. I made a record of all the intermediate times, the punctures and the falls, and our final time was four hours 31 minutes and 31 seconds.

Fancy trying ‘cross

“We did it again in May 1961, and lowered the time to three hours 54 minutes. So I decided to organise the first Three Peaks Cyclocross race on October 1, 1961.

“There were 35 starters, including a World Championship cyclocross rider, Bill Radford, from the Midlands. We went the same way as the fell race does — Pen-y-ghent first, then Whernside and finally Ingleborough, starting and finishing at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. I won, from Harry Bond.”

In all, Rawnlsey organised 50 Three Peaks and rode 45, stepping down in 2012 at the age of 75. He also took up running to do the Three Peaks fell race 30 times. He’s walked the Three Peaks too, and at the last count he’d been round more than 150 times.

Walk, run, ride

A tough day on the bike. Photo: Andy Jones

A tough day on the bike. Photo: Andy Jones

The Three Peaks has been won by some of Britain’s best cyclocross riders as well as by one European, Swiss Arthur Mainz, in 1981. It’s also the place, other than multi-sports events, where running meets cycling.

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Many winners have fell running experience, and the current victory record holder, Rob Jebb with 11, is one of the world’s best mountain runners, but has also competed internationally in cyclocross.

The route has changed over the years, and is now longer, at 61 kilometres, with more road sections. The order of peaks has changed too, with Ingleborough, Whernside then Pen-y-ghent the current  sequence. One thing remains — it’s still a super-tough and very special race.